Art Is Good for You On Broadway!

Art , Yasmina Reza’s very funny 90-minute play that just opened at the Royale Theater, is a delight in more ways than one. This intermissionless comedy of splendid ill manners famously revolves around a white-on-white abstract painting that almost ruins a 15-year friendship between three men. But the surprising artfulness of Art is that it isn’t really about art. In its entirely winning way, it’s about the art of friendship.

Its pleasures are underpinned by Matthew Warchus’ lean and perfectly paced production and three super performances from Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina. The three stars are at the top of their game, their assured ease with each other and charm adding to the fun. We like them, though the smug characters played by Mr. Alda and Mr. Garber aren’t always likable. (Mr. Molina’s compromising crybaby on the edge of a nervous breakdown and a miserable marriage is more sympathetic.) But we could say the real star of the play-the fourth character without which there wouldn’t be a play-is that pricy, high-status blank, the 4 feet by 5 feet white-on-white painting that soaks up judgment with utter, dominating indifference either way.

The painting has been bought by the pretentious Serge (Victor Garber) for a small fortune. His best friend Marc (Alan Alda), invited to genuflect before it, announces that it’s “shit.” The third friend Yvan (Alfred Molina) has no views, wishes only to please and therefore alienates them both. The contemptuous antimodernist Marc, the upwardly mobile, trendy Serge and the neurotic amoeba Yvan are brought to the brink by-of all things-a work of so-called art.

This is the first comedy I’ve seen that revolves around friendship and artistic bickering. The white-on-white painting itself has even been criticized by some for not being truly modern! It’s more a classic modern abstract, circa 1975. It isn’t one of Damien Hirst’s highly regarded dead animals. It’s just generic modern. But it isn’t the dramatist’s intention to make easy jokes at the expense of old-hat targets. She’s onto wittier and bigger things.

“You can say, I don’t get it, I can’t grasp it,” Serge protests angrily at his friend’s derisive reaction. “You can’t say it’s shit.” In other, pluralist words, you cannot criticize someone else’s taste. You mustn’t! For to do so would be a lapse of good taste.

As Louis Menand pointed out in a recent New Yorker column, pluralism is the ascendant philosophy of the day. Art couldn’t be timelier in that sense. “No one wants to get caught asserting that one type of art is better than another,” Mr. Menand wrote. For good measure, he reminded us that last fall when The New York Times asked 17 experts, including Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and William Rubin of the Museum of Modern Art, the question “What is art?” they all gave the same answer. They said the question had no answer. Art is whatever people say it is.

But if anything can be art, art no longer exists. Ms. Reza’s voice of protest, Marc, might be an envious, condescending middle-aged fossil dismissing his friend’s pride and joy as “shit,” but he’s in favor of certain standards. He dares to believe that some paintings are better than others!

A generation ago, the acerbic Cambridge literary critic and legend F.R. Leavis actually caused an uproar by saying that not all novels are created equal. (Naturally, the novelists dispatched to the lower ranks objected the most.) Today, the highest voices in the art world and other Mad Hatters are saying you cannot judge a work of art. You can say politely-as the offended new art collector Serge advises-that “it’s not for me, really,” or “I’m afraid I don’t happen to like it.” But if there’s judgment, it must be of yourself. It’s why, in The Times ‘ laudatory feature on Chuck Close’s repetitively pointillist portraits at the Museum of Modern Art on Feb. 27, Michael Kimmelman could write that if we feel there’s something lacking in the art, “it is really in us.” There you are! We’re to blame.

No, we are not to blame. Some art is a joke. And some plays are better than others, too. This is one of them. But Art isn’t about esthetics. Nor, clearly, is it intended to be a sophisticated Stoppardian dialectic about the mysterious meaning of art (“It’s shit!”). The white-on-white painting serves as the catalyst to the drama’s fun and games about the art of friendship.

Judgmental Marc-a critic in disguise-breaks the unwritten rules. “I can’t love the Serge who’s capable of buying that painting,” he explains, and means it. (Which reminds me of Kenneth Tynan’s renowned “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger .”) Marc has made the fatal error of taking the taste of his friend personally. Worse-he takes it as an insulting betrayal. But personal differences are what spouses and lovers are for, as opposed to the delicate ground of enduring friendship.

The painting-a comparatively minor thing, after all, if expensive-throws them all to the extent that none of them can now be sure what binds them together, or even why they like each other. It’s as if you or I visited our best friend and wondered aloud, “How can you live in a dump like this?” Or, “How can you live with such a putz?”

Perhaps we fall into friendships. We don’t judge our friends. It’s more tactful and discreet that way, and it’s easier, like not judging art. Friends are always there (or they wouldn’t be friends). But the moment we analyze the unspoken tightrope chemistry of our friendships, everything can easily fall apart.

Put it another way: What sort of friend are you if you don’t think your friends are special? So the white-on-white painting provokes the uncomfortable, amusing question, How can you really care for someone who has awful taste? And the answer is, Tenuously, blindly and well.

The outraged Marc is pointing a finger at the emperor’s suit of clothes when he says, in effect: “You are not entitled to find the colors of this painting fascinating. There are /i>>no colors!” And the opportunistic Serge defends good manners rather than the art! “What I blame him for is his tone of voice, his complacency, his tactlessness. I blame him for his insensitivity. I don’t blame him for not being interested in modern Art, I couldn’t give a toss about that.”

Each is a tyrant in his own enjoyably determined way. They approach the tyranny of closed minds-fashionable ‘good’ taste versus ‘intolerant’ critical standards. (Though your intolerance might be my good taste.) Even poor old unpretentious Yvan is a demanding absolute ruler via tearful, pathetic compromise. I’m surprised to learn, however, that the gifted Yasmina Reza has said that her play is as much a tragedy as a comedy. In my view, she is not entitled to say so. Marc would say she’s talking merde ; Serge would say the idea that Art is a comedy and a tragedy is absolutely fascinating; and Yvan would agree with them both.

I side with the tradition that wisely states one should never believe what the artist says, only what the artist does. Art is a very enjoyable soufflé-and none the worse for that. In Paris, where it originated, it’s in the honorable tradition of witty boulevard comedies. The sparkling translation is by Christopher Hampton. Mark Thompson has designed the highly appropriate, minimalist, white-on-white set of a chic monk. The brilliant, hangdog Alfred Molina stops the show with his hysterical delivery of the longest sentence ever written in a play, with the exception of Samuel Beckett.

If I may say so, we can’t be friends anymore if you don’t find Art a great pleasure.